The Act of Proscription, tartan and Gaelic culture

The Dress Act, part of the Act of Proscription (19 Geo. 2, c.39), came into force in Scotland on 1st August 1746. Section 16 of the Act made the wearing of “Highland clothes (that is to say) the Plaid, Philabeg, or little Kilt, Trowse, Shoulder-belts, or any part whatever of what peculiarly belongs to the Highland Garb; and that no tartan or party-coloured plaid of stuff shall be used for Great Coats or upper coats” illegal with the penalty of the first offence six months’ imprisonment, or a second offence transportation to the colonies for seven years i. Previously, sumptuary laws had been enforced to reinforce social hierarchies, but the Act of Proscription had much different goal; to enable the destruction of the clan system and to bring the Highlands under full control of the British. Unlike the disarming elements of the Act of Proscription which only applied to the Highlands of Scotland, the Dress Act applied to the whole of Scotland. However, as we will see later the law was unfairly applied and did indeed end up only being enforced on the lower classes of society. It was also only applied in some areas, with others being more lenient than others as we shall see later on. The Act was eventually repealed on 1st July 1782 with a proclamation issued in English and Gaelic.

Since the 1715 Jacobite uprising, tartan had become firmly associated with the Jacobite army despite the fact that a great number of Jacobite soldiers were not from the Highlands and the wearing of mixed tartans were very common, as can be seen in figure 1. (Scott 2018: 18 & 23)


Figure 1: detail from Morier, David (1745) An Incident in the Rebellion of 1745 (accessed from on 2 December 2018

David Morier’s An Incident in the Rebellion of 1745 (figure 1) was commissioned by the Duke of Cumberland a few months after the Hanoverian victory at Culloden, clearly as a celebration of his victory. The painting depicts the battle at Culloden and Morier used imprisoned Jacobite soldiers for his models (as well as British soldiers). The painting was given as a gift to Cumberland’s father, George II, and remains in the Royal collection. Along with the blue bonnet and the white cockade, tartan clothing was seen as a part of the Jacobite ‘uniform’ and this was certainly the perception in England where caricatures portrayed Jacobites as thieving, lice-ridden savages who ate children (Craig, 2017) and ransacked villages, murdered men and dogs, and raped women (figure 2).


Figure 2: detail from Van Duivel, Kind (1745) The Highland Visitors (accessed from on 4th December 2018)

Hugh Cheape argues that “tartan and Highland dress, bracketed with weapons, had come to be regarded as an outward and visible manifestation of Jacobitism and continuing loyalty to the Stuart dynasty in exile and, so, political treachery and lawlessness” (Cheape 2010: loc 449/6575). Pittock confirms that tartan was seen as a uniform rather than an ethnic identifier following the ’45, and that tartan was chosen as the uniform of the Jacobites between the uprisings of 1689-1746 (Pittock, 2010: loc 920-970/6575).
Tartan was frequently parodied in both English satirical portraits of Highlanders and Prince Charles Edward, as well as used in plays on the London stage mocking Highlanders. A contemporary satirical engraving of the Prince was clearly designed to mock Highland dress (figure 3). Scott supports this by arguing that visitors to the Highlands, whom she refers to as contemporary observers, were made to feel uncomfortable by Highland dress as it subverted 18th century norms of the Western European male’s attire of an early form of the three-piece suit (Scott, 2018: 27).

3Figure 3: G Will (c.1750) Prince Charles Edward Stuart, 1720 – 1788. Eldest son of Prince James Francis Edward Stuart, after a painting by British artist Wassdail (1745) (accessed from here and Description here on 2 December 2018)

Although tartan was included in the Act of Proscription because it was seen as the uniform of militarised minor cultural group by the dominant culture, it was also a form of dress which was at odds with the rest of the country/Western Europe. However, the reason behind the ban on the ‘Highland garb’ only applying to males and not females is clearly down to its identification as a military uniform.

Bishop Robert Forbes compiled Lyon In Mourning between 1747 and 1775, which was eventually published in 1895 by the Scottish History Society. His aim was to record the 1745 Jacobite uprising from first-hand accounts and also to document what happened afterwards. The second volume of Lyon in Mourning contains an astonishing story from Edinburgh, 20th December 1746, about a raid on tartan dresses ordered by the Justice Clerk and Lord Albemarle, who was an aide to the Duke of Cumberland and appointed as the general in charge of restoring order in Scotland (Forbes, 1895, ii: 111). Lord Albemarle was angered that the ladies of Edinburgh had gathered to have a ball in Prince Charles Edward’s honour on his birthday and perhaps the ‘raid on the tartan dresses’ was more about suppressing celebration of the Prince rather than tartan per se. The rumours of a ball were an elaborate joke designed to mock the British government. However, an unfortunate Mrs Jean Rollo was arrested for wearing a tartan dress but was later dismissed. She is the only woman known to have been arrested for wearing tartan during the period, however, there are cases of men being imprisoned. There is no reference to anyone ever being transported.

There are quite a few songs written about the Act (which can all reasonably be assumed to have been written in the latter part of 1746/in 1747). Perhaps the most cherished Gaelic song from this period was written by Alasdair MacMhaighstir Alasdair (Alexander MacDonald); Am Breacan Uallach (The Proud Plaid). MacDonald was the Gaelic tutor of Prince Charles Edward during the ’45 and was also an officer in the Jacobite army. It is therefore unsurprising that he would be a very vocal critic of the Dress Act. His twenty-six-verse song Am Brecan Uallach, (full lyrics and translation in Appendix 1) starts with a romantic, nostalgic description of Highland dress. He talks in the first three verses about how much he enjoyed wearing Highland dress before turning to how practical the clothing was for a soldier in verses 4 and 5. Verse nine talks about how admired Highland dress was by ladies, particularly at weddings and MacDonald continues with discussing the practicalities and the beauty of Highland dress before, at line 60, expressing his anger: “Cha Rìgh am fear a chuir as duit” (No King was he who thee forbade). The next two verses deal with how the Gaels have only been made stronger and refer to the Prince before the incredibly beautiful 19th verse which likens the Gaels’ relationship with the Prince to that of a firmly waulked cloth. Verse 22 directly discusses the Act of Proscription, stating that the Act hasn’t changed anything, and the Gaels are still loyal to their Prince, a quality that they got from their fathers (verse 23). Verse 25 directly addresses the Prince, wishing him well, before the final verse 26 addresses the Duke of Cumberland and states that he will end up in hell. It is clear that in this song MacDonald has drawn together the full range of emotions that were felt by the Gaels at that period in time; nostalgia for a past that clearly was not going to return, pride in the Gaelic way of life, anger at the British (and particularly the Duke of Cumberland) and a longing for the Prince to return.

Although Gaels understood the requirement to give up their arms, they did not accept the requirement to give up a costume in which they had considerable pride (Dunbar, 1981: 51). He further states that: “This was an imposition of personal shame and they reacted with indignation – particularly the clans which had been loyal to the Government.” (Dunbar, 1981: 51). This indignation is evident in Rob Don MacKay’s Oran nan Casagan Dubha (Song of the Black Coats). Rob Donn, who was uneducated and illiterate, was a great storyteller and songwriter from Sutherland who did not fight in the ’45 although he was a supporter of the British government. In his song, he issues a strong critique of the Act of Proscription and also of the British government/King George II. He was summoned to appear before the authorities for sedition after the publication of the song (Campbell 1933:234). In the second verse of the song, MacKay directly addresses King George II by asking if he wanted to mock his supporters in Scotland to ‘double their bondage’ (by introducing the Dress Act). Verses 11 and 12 are particularly striking; Rob Donn is appealing directly to the Prince to return and in verse 13 he says that he is ready to fight for the Prince. In the final few lines, MacKay appeals directly to God to make a judgment.

Although marginalised, Gaelic women did have an opinion on the Dress Act which is reflected in Margaret Campbell’s poem An t-Éideadh Gaidhealach  (The Highland Dress). Campbell’s poem, which must have been written sometime between April and August 1746 (line 10), shares the same indignation as the male poets and songwriters, but she discusses the Dress Act from a female perspective. The Dress Act did not apply to women, so the poet is writing on behalf of her community. The seventh verse talks about how men will no longer be able to show off their fine legs as they will be required to wear woollen stockings. She refers to how men will no longer be attractive to women and that it will be the King who loses out in the end as he will not be able to tax dyestuffs (as opposed to discussing loyalty).

It is probable that a large number of men were arrested for wearing tartan in the few years following the enforcement of the Act of Proscription, but only a few are recorded in the literature on Highland dress, most comprehensively by Dunbar (1962 and 1981). Dunbar states that he could not find any evidence of the Act being enforced before 1748, but an Army order of December 1748 changed the situation. Highlanders who were under suspicion of being rebels were made to swear an oath and anyone caught wearing tartan should be taken to the nearest magistrate, in the tartan clothing, for trial. In his History of Highland Dress, Dunbar discusses four different trials where men were arrested and imprisoned for wearing tartan; two Highlanders were arrested and imprisoned in Edinburgh in August and September 1749 for wearing philabegs, Oronoce – a black servant (slave?) of the Laird of Appin- was arrested and imprisoned for wearing tartan livery, and a farmer named John MacKay from Strathnaver in Sutherland was arrested for wearing a plaid and tartan coat, and in front of a magistrate within two hours of arriving in Inverness in October 1751 (Dunbar: 1962: 6-7). In his defence MacKay stated that he had never heard of the Act of Proscription, as he lived in a remote part of the country and was only in Inverness to attend a market. Hugh Cheape quotes a report from a Captain Hughes of General Pulteney’s Regiment dated 15th October 1749: “Duncan Campbell and his son, inhabitants of Glen Falloch, were apprehended in Highland Cloaths by the moving Parole and are confined in the Tollbooth of Killin” (Cheape 1995: 32). Cheape adds that there were many similar arrests but that soldiers enforcing the Act sometimes struggled to know whether the law was being broken (Cheape 1995: 33).
The policing of the Act was not equally enforced across the whole of Scotland. Grant and Cheape discuss how the districts of Rannoch, Glencoe, Lochaber, Glengarry, Knoydart, Glenmoriston and Laggan in Badenoch had been chosen by the British in 1747 for ‘thorough supervision and disarmament’, but that local magistrates and justices of the peace were as lenient as possible and accepted excuses for why the men had been found in Highland dress such as they were wearing women’s plaids, a plaid had been overdyed or a kilt sewn up the centre was actually a pair of trews (Grant and Cheape 1997:206)

In 1755, the Forfeited Estates Commission ordered a census to be taken on the estates it managed on behalf of the king. Factors of the estates were asked a large number of questions to report upon, including ‘Whether the laws prohibiting the Highland dress have taken full effect in that Estate’. The reports back to the Commissioners of the Annexed Estates on the whole stated that the ‘laws prohibiting the Highland dress’ had taken full effect with the exception of the barony of Colgach in the parish of Lochbroom. The Government seems to have been reassured by the responses of their factors as by 1760 there were no longer any prosecutions for wearing Highland dress due to patrols being stopped and the proscription being relaxed (Dunbar 1962: 8).

The Dress Act never applied to two groups of men: the military and the gentry. The use of tartan by the British military is a fascinating subject which is too broad a subject to discuss here, except to mention that it was rather ingenious to allow Highland regiments that fought in the Seven Years War in North America to wear a tartan uniform when it was still banned in the Highlands. For example, the Fraser’s Highlanders regiment was formed in 1757 to fight in North America and their uniform included diced tartan hose, a traditional plaid and blue woollen bonnet (which all could arguably be described as ‘traditional’ Highland dress) along with a short redcoat (see figure 4 below).

4Figure 4: Contemporary sketch of the Fraser Highlanders’ uniform during the Seven Years’ War (accessed from here on 8 December 2018)

During the period of proscription, a large number of the gentry had portraits of themselves painted wearing tartan. John Campbell, who was the main cashier at the Royal Bank of Scotland in Edinburgh, curiously had a portrait of himself painted by William Mossman in 1749 (figure 5). Although Campbell’s political affiliation is not known, it seems likely to assume that he may have been a supporter of the Jacobites due his aiding them to trade RBS bank notes for gold during the Jacobite occupation of Edinburgh in 1745. In the portrait, not only is Campbell wearing Highland dress but he is also fully armed. This therefore begs the question as to whether this portrait was intended to challenge the authority of the British government, perhaps particularly in relation to fiscal policy (the RBS bank note being very visible).

5Figure 5: Mossman, William (1749) John Campbell of the Bank (accessed from here on 8 December 2018)

With the exception of Flora MacDonald, most people painted wearing tartan during the period of proscription were wealthy men such as John Campbell. A beautiful portrait of a young Helen Murray of Ochetyre exists, which was painted about 1750 and is the only known painting of a girl wearing tartan clothing during the period (MacDonald, 2014). One more portrait of children wearing tartan exists. In her book Damn Rebel Bitches, Maggie Craig discusses Lady MacDonald of Sleat, who had her sons, Sir James (hand on rifle) and Sir Alexander (holding golf club), painted wearing Highland dress in 1750 (figure 6). Craig states that: “the painting is unsigned because the artist was committing a criminal offence, as were the boys for wearing tartan and their mother for choosing to dress them in the Highland style.” (Craig, 1997: 3266/3416). This is not entirely accurate; there was no law against painting a portrait of someone wearing tartan, nor was there a law against a mother dressing her children in tartan. In fact, the only people officially in defiance of the Act were the boys themselves. The boys’ father, Macdonald of Macdonald, did not fight in the ’45 although it was known that their mother was from a Jacobite-supporting family. The notes on the painting on the National Galleries of Scotland website states that: “The Government was apparently keen to shield the Macdonald boys from disruptive Highland influence and both were sent to be schooled in England”; could the ‘disruptive Highland influence’ be their mother?


Figure 6: Unknown (abt. 1749) Sir James MacDonald and Sir Alexander MacDonald (accessed from here on 8 December 2018)

From the beginning of the 1760s there clearly was a shift in thinking about whether the Highlands still represented a threat to status quo. As mentioned above, regular military patrols were no longer active after 1760. Tartan was clearly being marketed and sold again; advertisements from the newspapers at the time in Edinburgh providing proof such as the following from the Caledonian Mercury in 1761 (the first advertisement to be found for plaids or tartans anywhere else in Scotland is Aberdeen on 15th July 1782, two weeks before the repeal of the Act). The Highlanders who once fought against the British government were now successfully fighting for the British in North America and they were no longer seen as a threat.

7Figure 7: Advertisement by James Bailie, Merchant in Edinburgh, in the Caledonian Mercury (Saturday 13th June 1761). Accessed from on 9th December 2018)

The Act of Proscription was eventually repealed on 1st August 1782, thanks to the efforts of the Highland Society of London, (given royal assent by George III on 1st July 1782) with a printed declaration issued in both Gaelic and English afterwards.

In summary, the ten years following the defeat of the Jacobites at Culloden were incredibly difficult times for the Gaels. Their traditional way of life was almost systematically eradicated thanks to the heavy-handed efforts of the Duke of Cumberland and the British state. Highland society was turned upside down by the removal of clan chiefs – who had traditionally been able to call men on their estates to fight- as hereditary proprietors of estates and turned them into British landlords concerned primarily with making money. The speaking of Gaelic – frequently referred to as Erse or the Irish language- was discouraged in favour of English and it is fair to claim that the dominant British culture aimed to reduce at best, or eradicate at worst, Gaelic culture. Although the Dress Act sought a removal of tartan as a signifier of a separate Gaelic identity, it was only temporary in its nature.



i The full text of the Act as well as the repeal proclamation can be accessed here 
ii These original reports are archived in the National Archives of Scotland, but some of the details were reproduced in SRO (1973) Reports on the annexed estates, 1755-1769 : from the records of forfeited estates preserved in the Scottish Record Office HMSO
iii “the Highland Dress and Disarming Acts have taken effect here, tho’ perhaps not so fully as on the other parts of this estate, for many corners of this barony lye so remote & divided from each other that very probably some fellows may presume to transgress where they can do it with impunity as there is no troops quartered among them, but the factor is hopefull that they are now more upon their guard as he has published repeated advertisements of their danger” (SRO 1973: 40)
iv There are further details of John Campbell’s life and career on the RBS website:


Black, Ronald eds. (2001) An Lasair: Anthology of 18th century Scottish Gaelic verse. Edinburgh: Birlinn

Cheape, Hugh (1995) Tartan. Edinburgh: NMS
Cheape, Hugh (2010) Gheibhte Breacain charnaid (‘Scarlet tartans would be got’): the re-invention of tradition in Brown, Ian eds. (2010) From Tartan to Tartanry. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press
Craig, Maggie (1997) Damn Rebel Bitches Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing
Craig, Maggie (2017) Fake News 18th century style available from (accessed on 4th December 2018)
Dunbar, John Telfer (1962) History of Highland Dress. London: Oliver & Boyd
Dunbar, John Telfer (1981) The Costume of Scotland. London: Batsford
Forbes, Robert (1895) Lyon in Mourning volume II. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press
Grant, Isabel F.and Cheape, Hugh (1997) Periods in Highland History. London: Shephard-Walwyn
Lorne Campbell, John (1984) Highland songs of the Forty-five. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press
MacDonald, Peter (2014) Murray of Ochtertyre available from (accessed on 9th December 2018)
Pittock, Murray (2010) Plaiding the Invention of Scotland in Brown, Ian eds.(2010) From Tartan to Tartanry. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press
Scott, Jenn (2018) Better is the Proud Plaid. Warwick: Helion & Company
Scottish Record Office (1973) Reports on the Annexed Estates Edinburgh: HMSO


The song lyrics here as a PDF



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